From the Colonial era through the American Revolution to modern days, the pie has been a culinary and cultural mainstay on these shores. “New England Pie: History Under a Crust” details the evolution of pie since it landed in America. Author Robert S. Cox has written more of a history book than a cookbook, presenting an interesting and humorous account of New England’s past with pie as the central theme.

He opens with a quote from Harriet Beecher Stowe: “The pie is an English institution, which, planted on American soil, forthwith ran rampant and burst forth into an untold variety of genera and species.” While European pies were meals of meat and spices, American pies expanded to include fruit, and fruit mixed with meat to make sweet pies. Americans also embraced simple ingredients in their pie-making, a development Cox attributes to the Puritan influence.

The book is broken into chapters by the months of the year. Each chapter gives a history lesson replete with quotes, old photos, vintage food advertisements and pie recipes that suit that time of year. Many recipes are from old, obscure cookbooks such as one for a chocolate cream pie from Ladies of the Second Congregational Church, Biddeford, Maine, 1886. Some recipes are written in narrative form with vague instructions like “a small piece of butter” and “bake in a moderate oven.”

Since we are still enjoying the bounty of our apple season, I chose an apple pie recipe from the October chapter called Apple Cream Pie-Crust, which came from the 1895 A.A Cookbook (for its authors A. Alden and A. Adams). It is a two-sentence recipe suited to an era when piemakers were commonplace and confident:

“Line plate with crust; fill with sliced apples, add 2/3 cup of sugar, and pour over it 1 cup cream; grate over it a little nutmeg. Bake without top crust.”

Having made many pies this season, I filled in the instruction gaps based on my own experience. The standard pie crust I make is pâte brisée, which calls for 21/2 cups flour, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 cup chilled butter and 1/4 cup ice water. That recipe makes a top and bottom crust, so you can half the recipe for this pie. I put together and rolled out my crust, then peeled and cored 10 medium apples and tossed them in a bowl with the cream and sugar. Finally, I placed the apples in the pie crust and grated nutmeg on top. I baked the pie at 350 degrees F for 1 hour. (Presumably, pie bakers in 1895 lacked such precise oven controls.) Although the pie was interesting, kind of like the à la mode is baked right into it instead of added on top, I think I’ll stick with traditional apple pie with ice cream on top.

If you are the sort of baker who prefers precise, step-by-step instructions, you probably won’t use “New England Pie, History Under a Crust” as a cookbook. However, if you like pies and are interested in history, you will at the least enjoy reading it.

— ANGELA KING-HORNE


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